Backcountry Safety Gear
Gear recommendations and advice for beacons, shovels, and probes- the three critical pieces of avalanche safety gear.
Safety Disclaimer: Recreating in the backcountry is inherently dangerous. It is the responsibility of all users to inform themselves of proper backcountry safety protocols, especially in regards to avalanche conditions. It is your responsibility to make your own decisions. This is not a complete guide to avalanche safety or backcountry skiing. I assume absolutely no liability or responsibility for the use of information provided here.
Affiliate Disclosure: All opinions presented here are my own and have been formed through years of experience and rigorous testing. There are product links where I may earn a small commission from purchases made through those links (at no charge to you). As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
The three critical pieces of safety gear that you need for recreating in the backcountry are a beacon, shovel, and probe. The beacon is an electronic device used to locate buried individuals in the event of an avalanche, the probe is a long extendable pole used to find the people underneath the snow, and the shovel is for digging them out. These three items are critical for everyone in the backcountry. No matter what the conditions are I always make sure I have these three items in my pack when backcountry skiing.
A couple notes before my recommendations:
It may be initially enticing to go with the fanciest or most expensive option thinking that it will be better, but I am an advocate of the “simple is safe” mantra. When you are in a stressful rescue environment, a simple piece of equipment is what you need for a quick and efficient rescue.
Just because a shovel is bigger does not mean that it will make rescues faster. If you are a smaller person, then a big shovel will be cumbersome and hard to lift with a full load of snow.
No matter what brand you opt to go with, familiarize yourself with the gear. Practice, practice, practice! Take it out in your backyard with a friend and practice searching. Bury a beacon and see how quickly you can excavate multiple meters of snow. Do a dry run where you see how fast you can access your beacon, take off your pack, extend your probe, and assemble your shovel. Little things like straps snagging or zippers not functioning are things you want to discover now, not when you are in the field. This may all seem nitpicky but seconds matter when someone is buried.
All beacons operate on the same frequency so even if you have a Backcountry Access beacon and your partner has a Mammut beacon they will still talk to each other.
All of these recommendations come from years of use and extensive testing. During my time as an intern with BCA, I was involved in thorough testing of product from all different manufacturers.
The shovel lineup that I tested at St. Mary's Glacier, CO
Alrighty! Here are my recommendations:
Most backcountry brands sell a rescue package that includes the beacon, shovel, and probe for a discounted price. For beginners, this is a great way to go if you need all three items because it will save you a lot of money. Here are some rescue packages that I recommend:
1. Backcountry Access Tracker S Rescue Package (Evo Link and Amazon Link)
This is my top pick for beginners getting into backcountry skiing! This package from Backcountry Access (BCA) is affordable and has durable, easy to use gear. The TS Beacon has all the core features that you need. The screen is simple and easy to read which is exactly what you want in a stressful rescue environment. The probe is 270 cm which is ideal for lower depth snowpacks, like the snow found in Colorado. The shovel is the new Dozer 1T shovel. It is made of durable aluminum and has a unique ovo-concave shaft profile which makes it really easy to grip. Overall, you can’t go wrong with this package!
2. Backcountry Access Tracker 4 Rescue Package (Amazon Link)
If you want to upgrade a bit from the Tracker S Package then this is a great option. The shovel is the same as the other package but the beacon is the Tracker 4. This beacon is the same as the Tracker S but it has upgradeable software and motion-sensing auto revert. So, if the Tracker 4 does not move for one minute (or if there is movement, but the searcher remains in search mode for more than five minutes) then it will revert to transmit/send. The Tracker S has the same five minute auto revert but not the motion-sensing auto revert. The probe is also the 300 cm version which is ideal for a range of snowpacks.
3. Mammut Barryvox Tour Rescue Package (Evo Link)
I am also a fan of Mammut products. This rescue package from them includes the Barryvox beacon which has an information rich screen with good visuals. It also includes the Alugator Ride shovel and a 280 cm probe.
If you already have some gear and want to upgrade, or if you want to buy the rescue package items separately, here are some recommendations:
This is the beacon that I use and I love it. This beacon is the same as the Tracker 4 but with a slightly smaller screen and without the rubber over-molded case.
Simple, solid, and durable! Simple is fast when it comes to avalanche rescues.
Same top of the line features as other beacons but with a graphic screen
Classic BCA simplicity and durability! I personally use the Stealth 300 Probe.
Black Diamond Quickdraw Pro Probe 320 cm (also the 280 cm version)
I really like this probe because of the easy to use handle at the end. It makes assembling the probe a breeze.
BCA makes a few shovels that have a slightly bigger blade than the 1T. This is a nice feature to have if you don’t mind the extra weight and want the bigger blade.
This is the shovel that I personally use. It has a really useful “hoe mode” feature where you can put the handle into blade to create a hoe to paddle snow. It also has a slightly bigger blade than the 1T shovel from BCA.
If the “hoe mode” is not important to you, then this shovel from BCA is the one for you!
Same blade and shaft but with a D-shaped handle.
Bigger blade than the 2D/2H/2T. Ideal for sledders and those looking to move large amounts of snow.
Black Diamond shovels are also a great option. Here are my favorites:
Medium blade size, D-shaped handle, high quality, and a hoe mode conversion.
Small blade size, unique rapid deployment feature, and an ergonomic handle.
The larger blade version of the Evac 7. Similar to the BCA 3D shovel.
Here are some “specialty” shovels that have unique features:
2H handle (left) and 2T handle (right). Same as the previously mentioned 2T and 2H shovels, but with a saw! Ideal for cutting firewood or a tree that has fallen across the trail.
Shovels with perforated blades (lightweight): from left to right, Black Diamond Transfer LT, Mammut Alugator Pro Light, BCA 1T UL, and Ortovox Pro Light
You really can’t go wrong with any of these options! All have super lightweight designs yet are still very durable.
Note: There are a few products that I do not recommend:
Black Diamond and Pieps Beacons: I have personally tested these beacons and I am not a fan of how hard it is to slide the selector between different modes. This issue is compounded when wearing gloves and in cold environments. A switch like this should be easy to use like the mechanism used by BCA and Mammut. Many other people that I’ve talked to have also had similar complaints with these beacons. Also, they have had a range of warranty issues over the years.
Arva Plume Shovel: Within the first minute of using this shovel, I immediately broke the handle off the shaft and consequently broke the carbon fiber shaft. In my eyes, this shovel has no practical use. Yes, it is lightweight, but if a shovel can’t even function then there is no point to it.
If you are unsure about what the best avalanche safety gear is for you, then feel free to contact me through Curated! It’s a free to use service (I make money through sales commission and optional tips), and I love helping folks find the best gear for their exact needs.
Have fun and stay safe out there!